For about three years in the early 80′s I was a stand-up comic. It was a humbling experience. I was bad. Really, really, bad — particularly at first. There is nothing quite like “dying” on stage as a stand-up, think the Hindenberg disaster. Multiply by 10 your most humiliating experience — that will give you some idea. Stand-up audiences have a notoriously short fuse for inauthentic, not-funny, boring, stupid, or pretentious comic wanna-be’s. Basically, you have a brief moment to get their attention and hold it. If you haven’t got the attention of a group in the first six seconds — and this is true for any presentation — you are on your way to death.
Business groups may be more polite than a bunch of drunks in a nightclub (actually, they might be the same people) but the rule still applies. You’ll know you’re dying not by boos, or heckling, but by glances at watches, shifting eyes, and the infamous Blackberry prayer.
Before I quit stand-up I had a taste of modest success because I learned, the hard way, a few things, in addition to the six second rule. Here are 5 Ways to Prevent Dying. Maybe you can use these ideas to prevent your own Hindenberg-esque speaking disasters:
- In a presentation the first six seconds are your big chance. Whatever you do when you start, do it big, do it surprising, do it bold. Hit em with the stun gun in the first six seconds! Say something counter-intuitive, make a dramatic prediction, use your whole body in delivering your message — the key is to get creative and come up with something Different. Whatever it is — don’t hesitate, do it immediately. Know exactly what you’re going to say and do, and rehearse it until it’s perfect. Getting off to a good start buys you credibility and more time, and it boosts your own confidence.
- Be surprising. In the meat of your presentation you need to hold interest, so, keep attention with more surprises. I don’t mean jokes. Authentic humor is not about jokes as much as it’s about surprise. Don’t try to be funny, it’s too hard. Be surprising and funny will happen, or, you’ll just be interesting (not bad). Jokes are difficult to write, and difficult to deliver, so for the most part, leave them out. I learned years after my stand up career, in improvisation training, that audiences respond well to fresh, and also to what they perceive as spontaneous, real — and surprising.
- Use stories to illustrate everything. When I quit stealing jokes and started doing my own “what if?” questions and stories, I had my first small taste of comedy success. Years after my stand-up experience I took public speaking training with Bill Gove and Steve Seibold. I was surprised to learn that the best keynote speakers in the world had a complex formula for architecting their talks. Here’s how complex it is — tell a story, then, make a point. Or, a shocking twists — make a point, then tell a story about it. Stories, well told, pull your audience along with you towards your point — use them.
- Before you start assess the room, what’s the feel? What do you notice? Use it! We overlook obvious signals that can help us. Is there anything going on Right Now that I need to acknowledge, or use? Being in the present moment gives us spontaneous ideas that bring freshness to a presentation that engages.
- If something works, build on it, escalate. Comedians talk about the “rule of 3′s”. Basically, three funny things in a row, if they work, tend to get successively bigger laughs. So, for you, it’s not about jokes or one liners, it’s about building interest. If you notice something works to gets people’s attention, how you can quickly take it to another level. How can you escalate the moment? Three stories, three facts, three visuals…each a bit more interesting… Do it three times and you’ll have them eating out of your hands.
It doesn’t hurt if you finish as well as you start! So, apply the six second rule to your close and you’ll have framed your talk with death prevention insurance.
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